Commentary  LETTERS: McGill Must Do More to Combat Climate Change

According to the March 22 McGill Reporter, McGill is the first university to earn a communauté bleue award from the Quebec-based Eau Secours organization for its campaign to finally eliminate single-use water bottles from campus. In conferring the award, honorary chairperson of the Council of Canadians proclaimed, “In taking this step, the City of Montreal and McGill University have shown incredible leadership and foresight.” This award strikes us as odd. Many universities, including the University of Toronto, Ryerson, Ottawa, Concordia, Winnipeg, Queen’s and Trent, removed single-use bottles by 2011. While it is important that we acknowledge there are many ways to access drinking water beside polluting our landfills, oceans, and waterways with plastics, why are we congratulating ourselves for such a belated action?

We began to strategize about this when I (Sandra) invited Jonathan to give a guest lecture on climate change as a public health issue in my Anthropology of Critical Public Health class. By now most are aware that time has come and gone to seriously prevent heating the earth less than 2.0 oC. As computer modeling expert Rodrigo Castro says, “it is our predicament that we live in a finite world and yet we behave as if it is infinite.”  Despite the absurdity, limitless resource consumption and dreams of endless economic growth are still the dominant paradigms for North American institutions. 

We should not be praising ourselves for minor changes, like replacing water fountains that were removed in the early 2000s. Instead, we need to think big about how to address McGill’s wasteful consumption and contributions to the global climate crisis. McGill is a community of more than 45,000.  We must heed the calls to make a difference in our own daily lives and our academic institutions. 

We know many will say the McGill community is already doing our part. We have the Catalyst Award for sustainability. We have student groups working on climate change. We have staff members who have devised novel ways to deal with waste. Despite all this, we are still monstrously behind the curve, a decade behind equally large Canadian universities. 

When I  arrived at McGill in 2000, we barely recycled paper, let alone sorted refuse. One of my colleagues used to come into my office with his recycling and physically throw it in the trash, reminding me that I was “not in California anymore.” Things have not changed enough. As David Wallace-Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, it is time to panic.

For McGill to make a serious advances against climate change, we suggest five points of action, ranging from structural changes to quicker fixes:

  1. McGill must divest its funds from fossil fuels. Large international public institutions like the University of California system, and locally, UQAM have already begun this process, citing its feasibility. Before McGill can make any claims to being a climate leader, it must cease contributing to the industries responsible for destroying our environment. Recently SSMU voted to withhold the creation of any new students fees until McGill divests. Second, every McGill student, faculty and staff organization, that has held a vote on the issue has voted in favour of divestment from the fossil fuels industry.  Only the Board of Governors (BoG) continues to maintain these investments. On December 5, 2019, the BoG will vote again on divestment, thus we urge our community to follow Principal Fortier’s own words, that we must act on the science we produce, “…that climate change and its resulting socio-economic impacts pose a serious threat to life on earth,” meaning we divest all our fossil fuel holdings.
  2. We need a well-thought-out organizational environmental redesign of new buildings that go up and old buildings that need retrofitting. We have many experts at McGill who specialize in exactly these professions, why not tap the human resources that we already have? Tearing down buildings is more wasteful than putting up new ones and with our expansion into the Royal Victoria Hospital, we need better ecologically-minded policies that maximize space within an ecology-minded framework. We can start by replacing the fluorescent lighting in offices which give off noxious pollutants and greenhouse gases when left in landfills – they are not recyclable. LED lighting lasts twenty times longer than cathode tubes, and is easier on the eyes, meaning that, in the long run, they are cheaper and better for all environments.
  3. Montreal ranks as one of the highest light polluters in the world, based on the fact that large buildings keep their lights on all night long. Many cities across North America have turned to graduated lighting that synchronizes with the ambient light outside. It is time for McGill to not have single light switches for buildings, where porters and cleaners have to turn on every single light in the building in order to access one floor.
  4. Much of the food available on campus comes in unsustainable packaging from McGill’s current food service provider, Dana Hospitality. Furthermore, while there are garbage sorting facilities throughout campus, many of Dana Hospitality’s 27 concessions only have a single trash can, meaning that one has to walk outside their facility to recycle and sort trash. This could be a contract issue between Dana and McGill. We can demand onsite recycling for recyclable packaging, the use of more recyclable cardboard, and invite students to bring their own containers, or no contract.
  5. The wonderful Thursday Farmers market on McTavish went from offering fresh vegetables and fruits from local farmers and the MacDonald campus to a swank and expensive consumption mall; it’s time to bring back the farmers and to make affordable, organic, and locally grown food available to our community.

The era of “business as usual” must be declared over. However, whining and complaining just makes us part of the problem. We need an integrated, environmentally-centered approach that fosters the continuity of practices across our campuses and among our disparate faculties. We should also learn from other universities’ best practices, so we are not reinventing the wheel.

Let’s be blunt. McGill is a colonial university. We sit on Haudenosaunee unceded lands. Land acknowledgments alone will not change this history. Transitioning our campus towards a more conscientious relationship with the environment is only one (vital) part of forging a new and ethical relationship with our lands and communities. 

Let us move forward in a panic and get on with addressing climate change in our community. We can, and must, do better; for everyone in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the planet, and for generations to come.


Sandra Teresa Hyde is an Associate Professor of Anthropology, a MAUT Council member, and a member of the steering committee for the McGill Faculty and Librarians for Fossil Fuel Divestment (MFL4D).

Jonathan Wald is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology and is a member of the McGill Anthropology Graduate Students Association (AGSA). His dissertation, titled “Eco-Horror: Facing Climate Change in Minas Gerais, Brazil” explores the challenges of contemporary climate governance through a collaboration with the State Secretary of the Environment and Sustainable Development in Minas Gerais.